Tuesday 21 August 2012

Leadership still needed for nature’s recovery.

A recent House of Commons report is disappointed with the progress made since the Natural Environment White Paper was published.  

It’s been just over a year since the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) came out.  I welcomed this at the time  – it reflected many important points in the independent report on Britain’s ecological network (“Making Space for Nature”) and picked up key messages from the National Ecosystem Assessment.

Action is taking place on several of the commitments in the White Paper, and we in the Wildlife Trusts are contributing to many of them, but are we achieving the step-change in ambition for the environment that we feel is required?

The House of Commons “Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee” (EFRA) has now examined the policies in the White Paper to see how it has done over the last year and has come up with several key concerns. Find this report here.  I welcome the report.  It reflects some of the worries I have with progress over the past year and gives valuable guidance to government on what needs to happen now.

Overall, I don’t think we as a nation have grasped the basic point.  We depend on the natural environment for services that are essential to human well-being.  Putting a financial value on something that is “essential” is dubious, but if you did then it is clear these services are worth billions of pounds to the UK economy.  The NEWP recognised this but government is not showing the leadership needed in order to ensure that all Whitehall departments fully value nature’s benefits.

The Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is to be congratulated for the work it has done in this respect but the report says that stronger leadership is also required from HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office to effect the necessary culture shift amongst policy makers.  All government policy and legislation must be proofed for consistency with the government aspiration that the value of nature is fully reflected in decision making.

So far this has not happened.  NEWP’s laudable aims have not been incorporated into policies on transport and planning for instance.  This will affect us here in Sussex.  Although much improved over early drafts the new National Planning Policy Framework does not pay enough attention to NEWP so guidance is now needed to help planners and developers protect the environment.  Without this, government’s laudable environmental objectives will point us in one direction whilst the push for development will send us the opposite way.  Sussex, and the counties around London, are the most likely areas to feel this clash.

We need to incorporate the value of nature into everything we do – basically we need to pay for the essential services that nature provides.  We are all bogged-down in the idea that looking after the environment is a “cost”, because we don’t work out the value of the benefit (if we did then we’d realise that benefits can be 100 times the costs).  Nevertheless, government is unlikely to commit more public money to environmental resilience.  The report therefore says that DEFRA should set out how payments can flow from the beneficiaries of ecosystem services to those who protect and enhance environmental systems.  There are few good examples of this so far, but the National Ecosystem Assessment gives a wealth of evidence to help us achieve this.

The Natural Environment White Paper was a good step forward and some progress has been made.  However, we are in danger of resting on our laurels because of one or two good initiatives.  The fundamental changes are yet to be made.